FRINGE: Dark office comedy in deep Kafka

The Receptionist  

By Desperate Theatre Productions, Venue 14 (Holy Trinity Anglican Church)

Adam Bock’s The Receptionist may not seem like a comedy, but it is billed as such. If it is, it’s the blackest of black comedies. You can make up your own mind.

Not that it begins as black – that comes later. The comedy part (after an admittedly sombre protracted metaphor about how barbarous is the sport of fishing ) is in recognizing the familiar comic character of the receptionist who can balance more plates on a stick than a vaudeville trouper.

She handles phone calls and other people’s lives with equal parts of efficiency and briskness. Postage machines under her rule always work. Her stock of pens is precisely counted. Gossip, idle chatter, calls to friends, family problems – all under control as she dispenses coffee like a life-saving plasma.

There are others in the bubble. Lorraine (Kristi Hansen), a fellow office worker, who wails “I’m in love with a narcissist!” and flirts with the men who come into the office. Particularly Mr. Dart (Julien Arnold) – the man from Central Office who arrives shedding affability like a shark sheds scales. With some agitation, he is looking for the boss, Mr. Raymond (Reed McColm – also the director).

The play becomes the stuff of nightmares when Mr. Raymond finally shows and observes, “I broke his little finger and he still wouldn’t talk.”

From then on we’re deep into Kafka territory as, very suddenly, the play takes on a paranoid chill.

Stewart and Hansen, both naturalistic performers, play as if they had indeed spent the last two years working very closely in that office. You might say that in the receptionist, Beverly, Stewart has found the role she was born to play but you could say that about most anything this amazing actress takes on. Arnold switches in a heartbeat from bonhomie to malevolence and McColm is laid back and ultimately deadly.

There are no laughs in the second half of this unsettling play. And as a bit of a warning – more than one person left the theatre asking, “What just happened?”

4 out of 5